Q: You propose
a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every person the right
to a job at a living wage. How is this better than advocating
for another increase in the minimum wage?
A: I think this proposal is better in at least
three ways. First, it creates the goal of a living wage, not a
minimum wage. The minimum wage is roughly half what a living wage
would be. Under this approach, people are entitled to a living
wage. Second, it links the right to a living wage with the right
to a job. A right to a living wage is no good if you don't have
a job that pays it. This guarantees everyone who wants to work
the opportunity to do so. Third, by putting both the right to
a living wage and the right to a job into the constitution it
sets up a permanent method for enforcing these rights. It now
literally takes an act of congress to raise the pitifully low
minimum wage. If these rights are placed into our constitution,
there would be many ways to make sure they are met.
Q: What is the minimum wage now? Has the
minimum wage kept up with the cost of living? How have minimum
wage workers fared when you look at the value of the minimum wage
today compared to prior decades?
A: The minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. It has
not kept up with inflation and has not been raised for years.
If today's minimum wage was worth as much as the minimum wage
was in the late 1960s, it would be over $8.00 an hour. Minimum
wage workers did much better in past decades than they are doing
now. They are going backwards, fast.
Q: Exactly how much money are you proposing
we pay our minimum wage earners? In other words, what is a "living
wage?" How did you derive it?
A: I suggest a living wage is at least $10.50
an hour for a single worker with no dependents if the employer
does not pay health insurance, and $8.50 an hour if the employer
pays for health insurance. If the worker is supporting children,
then the living wage would have to be higher. The additional money
for workers supporting family members could be put into their
paychecks by tax credits. The actual hourly dollar figure for
the living wage is arrived at by figuring out how much it actually
costs to support yourself. Many organizations have calculated
the actual cost of supporting yourself, that is where the figure
Q: We have been led to believe that there
is no way we can guarantee good jobs at good wages for our citizens
because the free market will not allow it. What do you mean, "there
is no free market"?
A: I say that there is no such thing as a free
market because all of our markets have rules that help businesses
and others that require businesses to do something. Ask any accountant,
business lobbyist, or corporate lawyer. Business in this world
takes place in a highly structured setting. There are all kinds
of local, state, and federal laws and rules out there which help
businesses and employers. There are also some rules and regulations
which require them to do things they do not want to do. Every
single day in every single city council, state legislature and
in Congress, there are lobbyists and lawyers working to change
the rules and laws to benefit their business clients. There is
no company in the USA which does not take advantage of these tax
credits, special business opportunities, legislation and rules.
All this proposal is asking for is that one of the rules becomes
that every person have a right to work and to become self-supporting
by earning a living wage.
Q: Opponents also argue that paying higher
wages is unaffordable for businesses, fuels inflation, and causes
higher unemployment as businesses respond to increased labor costs
by laying off workers. How do you reply to that?
A: The first response is that we are already
paying a very high cost for a system which allows low wages and
high unemployment. Each one of us is subsidizing low wage work
and unemployment right now, through our tax dollars, through our
churches and neighborhood organizations and all the other ways
that we pay for food, shelter, child care, medical care and transportation
for the poor. But it is true that here is no such thing as a free
lunch. What this means is that we as a society will have to pay
a price for giving every person the chance to work and earn enough
to support themselves and their families. Social security costs
money, medical care for the elderly costs money, but we have found
a way to make them work. Though they still have problems we have
always found ways to make them work and we always will. The same
will happen with this proposal. If the people want it, it will
happen and we will find the way. The second response is that people
ought to remember our history. Every single effort to make social
progress, from outlawing child labor to medicare to social security
to paying a minimum wage, has been opposed by people who say it
would fatally wreck the economy. Such criticism is expected. If
people agree that every person ought to have the right to a job
that pays a living wage, we can find a way to make it happen without
wrecking the economy.
Q: Tell us about other times in U.S. history
when a guaranteed right to employment or a living wage was seriously
considered. What did Thomas Pane propose in 1791? Tell us a few
of the many things Franklin Delano Roosevelt said about full employment
at a living wage.
A: Making sure that every person has a chance
to work and earn a living wage is not a new idea. In 1791 Thomas
Paine published The Rights of Man and proposed that the
government set up places where anyone who wanted to work could
find a job. They would be paid room and board plus some money
for working, no questions asked. Since the 1800s cities such as
Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and others have set up public
works projects to give people jobs when unemployment was high.
In 1937 FDR said it was time that our nation “should be
able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able bodied
working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s
Q: Isn't amending the Constitution a hard,
time-consuming and politically demanding task? How specifically
would the process of implementing your proposed amendment operate?
A: Yes, amending the Constitution is tough and
takes time. The Constitution is our promise to ourselves and we
take it seriously so it should not be lightly changed. That is
exactly why a constitutional amendment is needed. This discussion
has to happen in all 50 states and in both houses of congress.
It is a big step. It is an important step. And it should not happen
unless the people want it to happen. The first step is to start
a serious discussion about what our nation
wants for the people who work and still are poor. We have not
had that discussion. We have talked for years about moving people
off of welfare into jobs. Now we need to take the next step and
talk about moving people who work and are still poor out of poverty.
Most everyone I know of agrees that people ought to have the chance
to work if they want to and ought to be able to support themselves
and their families if they work. We need to start figuring out
how to make that happen. This amendment will add to that discussion.
Q: You maintain that "most of what
the general public believes about poverty and work is inaccurate."
What do you mean? Many people think that the lack of education
is keeping some people out of the job market. How do you respond
to this claim?
A: I think there are many common myths about
poverty out there. Many people think the solution to poverty is
for people to get a job. That is just plain wrong. Tens of millions
of people are already working and they are still poor. Lack of
education is certainly a problem that our nation needs to address.
But should people have to wait for jobs or decent wages until
our nation solves our educational problems? I don’t think
so. Each person, no matter what their education, deserves respect
as a human being. If a person is poorly educated or undereducated,
they are still a person. They are still parents. They deserve
a chance to work and support themselves and their families while
we as a nation work on our educational problems.
Q: Some theorists think that millions of
unemployed are good for the nation. In fact, the current policy
of the Federal Reserve nearly dictates that some percentage of
the workforce must be unemployed in order to fight inflation.
How do you respond to those arguments?
A: You are right that some economists think that
the nation has to have several million people out of work in order
to keep inflation down. I think most people think that is wrong.
We cannot in fairness say that millions of workers have to be
denied the chance to work so that those of us who are employed
will be better off. The unemployed are people just like us, they
just don’t have jobs. I think we as a nation can find a
way to allow every person to work and earn a living wage if we
put our minds to it. That is why this needs to be in the constitution,
to keep the importance of jobs at good wages always on our national
Q: How has Clinton-era welfare reform affected
the working poor?
A: Welfare reform was very good at changing non-working
poor people into working poor people. It was not very good at
changing working poor people into working people who can earn
enough to support themselves and their families.
Q: Why is the minimum wage not indexed for
inflation, while Social Security is?
A: Political pressure made Congress index Social
Security benefits so they rose each year with inflation. That
is exactly what it will take to create a living wage and to allow
it to rise each year with inflation.
Q: Adding the guarantee of a right to a
job with a living wage to the Constitution will not instantly
make that a reality. What will bring it about?
A: Putting an idea into the constitution, like
the right to vote, does not automatically make it happen. It takes
Congress, the Executive Branch, the Courts, and ultimately the
people to make that promise a reality. Putting it into the Constitution
is a big step, but you are right, it is only the first of many.
Q: How popular are movements for living
wages? About how many jurisdictions in the country currently have
living wage ordinances? About how many other are working on enacting them? What is the substance
of most of these ordinances?
A: Living wage laws have been passed by more
than 75 cities in the US. They are very popular with cities and
voters. They are very unpopular with low-wage industries like
the restaurant and hotel lobbies who have tried in courts and
in state legislatures to make cities stop passing these laws.
Most living wage ordinances say that any business doing business
with the city has to pay their employees living wages, usually
something in the neighborhood of what I am proposing, $10.50 an
hour if the do not pay health insurance, and less if they do pay